Some schools in Omaha were built in reaction to floods of new residents moving into neighborhoods unexpectedly. Others were built to attract new residents. Originally opened in 1885, the school at North 30th and Spaulding Street was the latter. This is a history of the Druid Hill School in North Omaha.
A Pioneer School
When the Bedford Place neighborhood was established, there were a few farm houses scattered around the area. The Druid Hill neighborhood was just west of Bedford Place, and both of them were suburban developments framed by a rolling hillside with hundreds of lots available for houses to be built. Launched in 1885, the Belt Line Railway was a passenger commuter train with its Druid Hill Station made the neighborhood an early magnet for middle managers in downtown Omaha businesses who wanted a sense of living away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
The Druid Hill School was established in 1885 to serve children moving into the Bedford Place and Druid Hill neighborhoods. The original building was a four-room wooden schoolhouse that was expanded repeatedly until 1924. Students in grades kindergarten through eight were graduated from the school. Professional baseball player Mel Harder (1909-2002) started playing baseball at Druid Hill when he attended in the 1910s. Some, like Harder, went on to attend the new Tech High School more than two miles away, while others went into occupations and trade schools around the city.
In 1917, the Omaha school district built a new building to serve the neighborhood at 3030 Spaulding Street. Built in 1917, the second Druid Hill School building was designed for 500 students. The building had nine classrooms and a kindergarten in the basement, along with a library and a nurse’s office. There wasn’t a cafeteria in the building until the 1950s.
The architect for the two-story structure was Frederick A. Henninger (1865–1944), who ran a popular architectural firm in Omaha. Other North Omaha buildings designed by Henninger include the Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church, the Jewel Building, the Margaret apartments and several of the Strehlow Terrace buildings.
The Bedford Place and Druid Hill neighborhoods grew a lot over the next 15 years. There were many industrial factories nearby that drew in workers, managers, and their families. They included the Douglas Motors factory, the US Brush Company, the Murphy, Wasey and Company Factory, the US Mills plant, the Uncle Sam Cereal factory, and the US Mills plant. The intersection of 30th and Ames in-filled a lot and more light industrial plants in Saratoga brought many jobs within walking distance. Streetcars served North 30th Street and Ames Avenue, and the area grew a lot. Children were everywhere, and Druid Hill School thrived.
Because of crowding at nearby North High, in 1935 the school added the ninth grade for several years. During the next 25 years, the school remained stable. After the World War II housing boom in-filled the surrounding neighborhoods along John A. Creighton Boulevard and Paxton Boulevard, African American students began attending the school.
White parents at the school often appear racist, and Harry Burke, the Omaha Public School superintendent in the 1950s reflected their racism. According to Nebraska historian David Bristow, a North Omaha civil rights leader in the 50s and 60s named Herb Rhodes once said that Harry Burke “proclaimed that as long as he was superintendent, there would not be a black educator in the school system, other than the two schools that served the black community.” Burke opposed having black teachers “where white children would see a black person in a role of prominence or authority.”
In the 1950s, white protests to the school board led to segregation planning for the school district, including Druid Hill. Official plans from the district show that in 1951, they considered converting the school from an elementary to a junior high school. This would consequently send all of the white students to a predominantly white, while making Druid Hill a predominantly Black school. While the plan wasn’t instituted, the school’s demographics showed segregation took over shortly thereafter.
Starting with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the surrounding neighborhood became increasingly integrated. As redlining ended, more African Americans moved into the Bedford Place and Druid Hill neighborhood especially, and racism caused white flight causing the school’s population to become more African American.
That year, in 1964, the school was rebuilt and added onto to serve as a junior high school. Omaha Public Schools expanded the school building extensively that year with a massive addition. Adding a Mid-Century Modern design extension to the front of the building, the school population continued to transition to become almost completely Black. A dedication ceremony happened in early 1965. However, the junior high model wasn’t launched and the school didn’t serve beyond sixth grade.
In 1973, Omaha Public Schools were taken to the US Supreme Court to stop school segregation. The justices ruled Omaha must launch a desegregation plan affecting all primarily African American schools, including Druid Hill. During this era, the building had as many as 700 students.
In an attempt to challenge white flight, in 1981 Druid Hill became an elementary science magnet center for the entire city in an attempt to promote school integration. That program took off and included 25 “microcomputers” in a math lab. For several years white students from throughout the rest of North Omaha competed in a lottery system to attend the school.
However, neighborhood schools were reinstated in 1994 and integration busing ended when the federal government released Omaha from the court order. Druid Hill became nearly completely African American soon afterwards.
Druid Hill School Today
In 2002, the district spent almost $8,000,000 on a new building for Druid Hill Elementary School located at 4020 North 30th Street. An architecture firm called Jackson and Jackson designed the building in a configuration referred to as the “prairie wind configuration,” accounting for environmental and cultural considerations in their design.
The second Druid Hill School, built in 1917, was converted into other uses and lost its historic name. Today the building is home to the Integrated Learning Program for students with social, emotional, behavioral and cognitive deficits.
Today, the school has approximately 330 students in pre-kindergarten through grade five. 88% of the building’s population are students of color, with the vast majority African American. The student population is falling in numbers while academic achievement is far from par with the rest of schools in Nebraska. However, the school focuses on an African-centered curriculum with cultural, social and recreational aspects in addition to the academic curriculum.
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- History of Druid Hill Elementary School from the Omaha Public Schools website